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Ebb and Flow

Chapter Twenty Four

"The lady doth protest too much, me thinks."
Hamlet, William Shakespeare.

101 Degrees in the Shade: Beer, Tomato Juice, Hot Pepper flavored Vodka, Tabasco Sauce. Mix all three main ingredients and pour into glass. Add Tabasco Sauce to taste.

The barbecue was in full swing. Charles and Jane manned the grill, stealing kisses and heated caresses on the wooden deck, mistakenly believing themselves to be hidden from view. Elizabeth puttered about her kitchen, chopping tomatoes, onions and mixing her signature vinaigrette. She felt a profound sense of calm and contentment; she felt it in her muscles, her bones and deep within her belly. Her short time with William in the past twenty four hours had once again tilted the axis of her world. This time, the very motion was stabilizing, moving toward harmony rather than away from it. The previously tangled knots and ties were beginning to make sense. It was as if she had been standing behind a tapestry - exposed to its jumbled threads and now had glimpsed it from the other side - the right side - and seen the lovely design, compelling in its clarity.

Fitz worked away at her side, husking corn, occasionally throwing furtive glances in her direction. Fresh from his encounter with William at Langdon Hall, scars stinging raw, he felt uneasy, unsure of where his friendship lay with the couple. She, in turn, was acutely aware of his tall and lanky presence in her kitchen. They had attempted to banter back and forth. Their blunted effort at stilted conversation had fallen flat, and done nothing to dissipate his melancholic air.

Arriving at a decision, she put down her knife and turned to him.

"Richard Fitzwilliam... come here."

He stopped his husking for a moment and threw her a questioning glance.

"Put down that corn!"

Raising an eyebrow at her commanding tone, he obliged. He walked over to her; Elizabeth rose on her tiptoes and planted a smacking kiss on his lips.

"I adore you Fitz... you are the best friend any woman could wish for..."

He nodded his head - too choked up for words. This was what he needed; her reaching out, a reassuring and comforting touch, sealing their friendship anew. Gingerly placing his arms around her waist, he murmured.

"Thank you, I guess I needed to hear that."

"Hrrmm..." Both heads turned in unison to find William leaning against the doorway, arms crossed, appearing somewhat displeased.

"Take your hands off my woman, Fitzwilliam."

Elizabeth was about to retort, but caught his slow grin, and smiled gratefully into his eyes. William continued in a decidedly warmer tone.

"Actually, guys, I'm relieved to see you getting along so well... now where's the food? I'm starving!"

The doorbell rang and Elizabeth turned toward Fitz.

"Will you get that? My hands are filthy!"

Momentarily left alone with Elizabeth, William sidled up behind her, pressing his whole length into her back, and began to softly rub and knead her breasts, while nibbling on her neck and whispering sweet endearments into her ear.

"Hey... I'm cooking."

"And I need a snack, babe."

"You've got quite the appetite, Mr. Darcy," she purred.

"And I'm finding out, you do as well honey, you just hide it better." He purred back into her ear. She tilted her head toward him and ground her hips into his, a slow tantalizing motion.

"My secret's out..." They laughed softly, relishing the intimacy of the moment.

Fitz strode down the hallway and opened the front door. The woman was standing with her back to him and suddenly swung around - light brown hair swaying lightly, punctuating her movement. A pair of clear hazel eyes met his and her nose crinkled charmingly as she smiled.

"Hi! I'm Charlotte! You must be Fitz."

Momentarily startled by her breezy manner, he stammered.

"Uuumm... yes... come in... they're all out back. Can I get you a drink or something?"

The bright hazel eyes fixed on him again, sparkling merrily. "A spritzer would be great, thanks." Tossing her hair back she ambled down the hallway.

Fitz watched her disappear into the kitchen. Nice legs... and hurried to join the remainder of the party.

Several oak trees provided a welcoming shade in the garden. Elizabeth had set up a large table under the towering shadow of her favorite tree. A pewter vase of lilacs anchored the Provencal patterned tablecloth which was splashed with yellow and blue. The weather was mild, sunny and fresh; a lovely early summer day. William followed her every move, unable to stay away from her for long. The rest of the party had all registered an almost constant physicality between the pair. He would touch her hand, her arm, she would caress his cheek, they would muss each other's hair, seconds later he'd nuzzle her neck and on it went... It was as if a fine thread connected them, a raw tensile strength, pulling one to the other, back and forth. Once separated, they would continue holding their gazes across the distance, locked in silent and intense communication.

Charlotte, in particular, was fascinated by the interplay. She had not seen William since their trip to the Keys and his transformation was most astonishing. Gone was the haughty aloofness, replaced instead by affectionate warmth. Wow! Had he ever changed! Yet, there was something about Elizabeth that niggled at her, at the neonatal nurse in her... She seemed different; there was a glow to her skin, her face was softer, fuller, a velvety glimmer in her eyes. Observing her figure, she was struck by the way her t-shirt molded her breasts, the slight swell of her belly, it was subtle, but the message was unmistakable... Oh. My God! Lizzy's pregnant! Charlotte stood rooted to the spot, staring at her friend.

"Would you care for another drink, Charlotte?" Fitz approached, admiring the glint of her hair in the outdoor sunshine.

"Uuum... sure, thanks... excuse me for a moment."

She strolled over to Elizabeth and taking her aside, whispered to her.

"Am I right in thinking what I'm thinking?"

"What do you mean Char?"

"Elizabeth Bennet! Don't do this to me!"

Elizabeth smiled at her, arching her brows. "Yes... to whatever you're thinking..."

"Oh! My gosh! That's incredible! So... He's proposed and everything?!"

Elizabeth's smile faded. "He has... in a way... but I haven't replied yet... I need more time."

Charlotte stared at her, mouth agape.

"Are you nuts, girl? Do you see how crazy he is about you? He can barely keep his hands and eyes off you! I mean... look... he's staring at us right now... and the way he's changed... in a couple of months... the man has undergone a complete metamorphosis."

Registering Elizabeth's expression she stopped in her tracks. "I'm sorry... me and my big mouth... it's just that I so want both of you to be happy... but you're right, take your time..." She kissed her on the cheek.

Elizabeth, feeling guilty at her own reaction, reassured her. "Apology accepted, Char."

Unable to stay away from them any longer, William strode over, placing his arms around both young women.

"Hey... What was that heated exchange all about?"

Elizabeth touched his cheek soothingly. "Girl talk, sweetie."

The table was set, multicolored dishes in place. Tantalizing scents wafted from the barbecue; a mellow atmosphere prevailed. But one guest was missing - Georgie.

"William, should we wait for her? Or can we start?" Fitz inquired, hungrily staring at the laden table.

"She's often a little late for these gatherings, let's give her a few more minutes."

The group settled themselves on scattered wood and wicker chairs; a large colorful salad, steaming corn on the cob, and a tall glass pitcher of iced tea with floating berries vied for attention from the hungry crew. The garden wasn't large, but had great atmosphere; artfully arranged perennials, trellised sweet pea and roses provided privacy from the neighbors and the street beyond.

Jane and Charles could be heard fussing over the steaks.

"Honey, I think they're done!"

"No sweetie, this one definitely needs more..."

"Charles..."

"Jane..."

Finally she gave him a lusty kiss on the mouth, and he capitulated.

"Whatever you say, boss..."

"Well that settled it rather nicely," William murmured in Elizabeth's ear, stroking her arm up and down, sending warm shivers through her spine all the way to her toes.

At that instant a young woman stepped onto the deck, and was greeted by six pairs of eyes. She blushed. William stood up quickly - his chair toppling behind him, Fitz, catching it before it overturned on the grass.

"Georgie! You made it!"

On spotting her brother, her face lit up in a smile filled with relief. Elizabeth was mesmerized by the sight of the two siblings. Where William was dark, Georgie was very fair; silvery blond hair and soft curls formed a halo around her face. She was tall and willowy, her eyes appeared to be a changing shade of gray blue. She had the same aquiline nose as her brother, his full lips, but lacked his strong chin; the overall effect was that of a wraithlike almost ethereal beauty.

Encircling her shoulders protectively he introduced her to Charlotte, reacquainted her with Fitz and Charles, and finally approached Elizabeth who had remained seated.

"Georgie, I'd like you to meet Elizabeth..."

"Hello Georgie, I'm so glad you could make it. Jane's told me about you... So how are you enjoying the school?"

Her voice was soft and breathy, almost tentative. "Oh. I like it very much. Thank you."

William stood back and beamed. The two most important women in my life, here, together.

Settling Georgie on his other side, he placed his arm protectively around her. Elizabeth was fascinated by his overt expressions of caring. This is truly him, he must have always been like this with her. A small part of her felt a pang of envy. Girl, you'd better get used to sharing him! She chided herself.

Charles deposited a sizzling steak platter and roasted veggies on the table, followed by a garlic baguette dripping with butter.

"If the steaks are a tad overdone, please don't blame me, I'm just the sous-chef around here!"

Jane walked over and playfully flicked a dishtowel over his backside. "Now dig in guys. Hi Georgie! Please ignore Charles, he's only the hired help anyways."

The food was delicious, made even more so by the outdoor setting, fresh air, and lively company. Elizabeth noticed that Georgie hardly ate anything off her plate. It must be part of her social anxiety... The psychiatrist in her mused. She leaned over toward her and asked gently.

"William tells me you enjoy gardening... can I show you around? I need some advice about the back corner over there." The two young women moved away, William observing their every move. Charles tapped him lightly on the shoulder and spoke quietly in his ear.

"Darce, how did it go this afternoon?"

"I survived... barely," he answered.

"You're going to tell her about it, right?"

"Yes, yes, in due course."

Meanwhile, Elizabeth chattered on about the plants, attempting to draw Georgie out.

"And here is the sedum, it's very nice as it blossoms early in the fall."

"Yes, sedum seems to bring that last burst of color before fall settles in."

"Exactly my thought, Georgie...Over here... I have an empty area for something... I just don't know what to do with it... Any suggestions?"

"What about a small fountain? It would go with the English theme of your garden."

"Now that's an idea..." She smiled - memories of another fountain filtering into her mind.

"Thank you for coming by the way, William was so happy to see you... you seem very close." She ventured, hoping with all her heart that Georgie would not back away.

"Yes, we are... he's a wonderful brother... he's been very good to me."

Elizabeth bent down to tear out a protruding weed, twirling it in her hands she continued. "He's a very special man, isn't he?"

She could feel the gray blue eyes gazing intently into her own. "Yes, he is... but he's not perfect, in fact he can be quite difficult at times."

Elizabeth laughed, relieved. " Hrrm... I think I'm beginning to understand that Georgie, I bet you have some good stories you could tell me, right?"

Georgie's eyes sparkled for the first time since her arrival. "Do I ever!"

Lacing her arm through the younger woman's, Elizabeth eased her back toward the group. " How about you and I go hunting for that fountain next week, maybe you could give me some suggestions for the annual planters as well?"

"Thank you, I would like that very much."

~ * ~
The now rowdy group had started clearing what meager spoils remained from their feast, bringing dishes into the kitchen. An insistent, pounding rhythm could be heard through opened French doors, reflecting Jane's somewhat eclectic taste in music. Jane stood at the sink - swinging her hips in time to the pulsating beat and singing at the top of her voice. "I like big butts and I cannot lie!..."

Charles yelled above the din of the music, "Jane, what the heck is this stuff?"

"Charlie's Angels c.d.! Isn't it fab? Great rhythm... come on Charles let's see some hip action baby!... I know you can do it!" And Charles obliged, demonstrating with great gusto his rhythm and superior athletic ability.

Fitz, deciding to join the fun, snatched a dish towel, and swinging it above his head started gyrating around the kitchen. Grabbing Charlotte by the waist, he swung her around in a mad frenzy, adding to the general commotion. On seeing both women enter through the doors, William strode toward Elizabeth and clutching her in a tight embrace drew her to a corner of the room and began a sinewy swivel to the throbbing rhythm .

Georgie stood framed by the French doors, partner-less, a cardboard smile pasted on her face, intently observing her brother. He was dancing with Elizabeth, his tall form cradling her from behind, his large hands lightly splayed on her belly, their hips moving in perfect unison.

She had never seen him dance like that. She had never seen him dance at all.

~ * ~
On his way out, William turned to Georgie. " You're going to stay on the boat this evening, right?" He and Elizabeth had tacitly agreed to remain in their respective beds tonight. He hadn't spent much time with his sister and wanted to make up for it. Walking back to the marina, she was unusually silent. Finally she spoke.

"Why did you bring the boat all the way over here?"

He had anticipated the eventual questioning at her hands, but had not expected her tone to be so hostile and withdrawn. Sighing, William attempted an explanation.

"So that I would have a place to stay when I visit you and Elizabeth."

"You could always stay with me - I live in this town as well, you know."

"Georgie, I don't know how to phrase this any better, but Elizabeth and I need our privacy."

"Oh. I see."

"You're upset. Want to talk about it?" he enquired gently.

"How very observant of you, William."

"Georgie, what is this really all about?"

She started walking ahead of him, attempting to put distance between them. He let her have her way. They were at the beach now, the marina but a few hundred feet away. Without a backward glance, she climbed up on one of the out jutting rocks lining the water's edge, waves lapping a few feet below her. Sitting on the rock, hugging her knees tightly to her chest she seemed so fragile, so very alone. His heart constricting into a tight knot, he sat down behind her and encircled her in his strong arms, a circle of love, of safety. Absorbing the heaving of her shoulders, he stroked her hair with one hand, the other holding her tightly in his warmth.

"Shhh... don't cry."

"I don't want anything to change," she sobbed through her tears.

"Georgie, we have to move on in life, change can be scary, but it's inevitable, you have to try and accept that."

"I'm scared of losing you!"

"Why do you say that? I don't plan on going anywhere, baby." He stroked her hair reassuringly.

"Because you're so different around her - you have changed so much Will - I hardly recognize you anymore."

"Is it that obvious?" She nodded her head in response, a new shower of tears streaming down her face.

"You're right, knowing her has altered many parts of my life... but that does not mean I'll stop being a brother to you."

"So, this is really serious then?"

"Yes, it is."

"She's very beautiful."

"I know. She's also very loving and extremely intelligent."

Georgie's tears slowed down to a trickle. " Jane told me - about her work at the clinic."

"Yes, it's pretty impressive isn't it? How... how are you feeling ? Is the clinic helping you?"

"Better, I'm sleeping better. The nightmares are gone. The new medication is helping and they're teaching me different ways to cope with my nervous feelings. I guess, overall, I was feeling much better... till today."

"Georgie, give her a chance, get to know her. And give me a chance too."

She smiled tentatively, misty gray blue eyes shining into his own much darker ones. "You know me... I can't say no to you. Of course I will give her a chance, actually I kind of like her already. Have you talked to dad about her?"

"Not yet, but I will this week - there's something I'm working on with Meryton."

At the mention of Meryton, she flinched.

"Trust me Georgie, if my plan works out, Wickham will just be a mere shadowy memory, harmless and insignificant."

"I have always trusted you Will."

She turned around and gave him a soft, clinging hug. He returned her affection with all the gentleness and brotherly love he could infuse into the moment. And Georgie knew, knew deep within her heart, that this man would be there, for her, as long as she needed him.

"Will..." she murmured into his neck, "when did you learn to dance like that?"

His eyes twinkled. She was so young, so naïve. "I guess I always had it in me, little sister."

She hit him playfully on the arm. "I never would have guessed, big bro...and by the way, I'm not so little any more."

~ * ~
He stood at her door, impatiently waiting for it to open. He felt seventeen again, nervous anticipation mixing with delightful suspense. It had been a lonely night, despite Georgie's presence on the boat. Everywhere he looked, he was reminded of her, reminded with a deep visceral ache of her absence. He needed to see her. He had to drink her in again, daily. The need was elemental, like water, and intoxicating at the same time. She was becoming his addiction, fuelled by his own exhilaration at becoming newly known to himself and the rest of the world. Georgie had been right, he had changed, his perspective on life had become altered, a fresh and vibrant shift, a reaffirmation of himself and his love for others.

She opened the door, and her face lit up, an enchanting smile. Throwing herself into his arms, she held on to him, wrapped in a powerful and eloquent embrace.

"God, I missed you William..."

He kissed the rest of her words away from her mouth, nibbling on her upper lip, running his tongue over its curved contours, and tasting her sweetness. They remained thus intertwined for some time. Jane's voice broke through their embrace.

"Hey, you two! It's bad luck to kiss across the threshold, you know!"

Without breaking his hold, William edged Elizabeth inside the house. With his free hand he pulled the door close behind him and continued his passionate attentions. Jane snorted at the pair, and padded into the kitchen, followed by a most disgruntled Mr. Collins.

Eventually coming up for breath, he chuckled softly.

"What are you laughing at?"

"Us," he replied.

"Why?"

"If this is the greeting I get after not seeing you for one night, what will happen after three weeks? You're setting quite the precedent, babe."

"Three weeks? Is it going to be that long?"

"I've got to travel around the States over the next while. I'm sorry Elizabeth. Where are you headed this morning?"

He'd noticed earlier that she was wearing a rather becoming floral tea length dress, with a deliciously scooped neck showing her bountiful cleavage to full advantage.

"Church," she answered simply.

"Do you attend regularly?" he asked surprised. Another area they yet had to discover and discuss together...

"Not really, but lately I've been craving some peaceful thinking time, and it seems to provide just that."

He hesitated for a moment. "Can I... come along?"

"Sure, let's head off , it's just around the corner."

~ * ~
St. John's Anglican Church, a stark, one hundred and fifty year old gothic style structure, was but a few minutes walk away. Its severe and rigid exterior was redeemed almost entirely by the surrounding lushness of its gardens. The church was full, but they were able to secure two seats near a front pew. As the service progressed, William held on to her hand, keeping the thread, their connection, alive and vibrant.

A few pews back from the pair, sat an extremely flustered Fanny Bennet, dutifully accompanied by her husband. She had noticed her daughter immediately and was twice startled. Firstly, Elizabeth was not a habitual churchgoer, secondly, she was accompanied by a most striking, dark-haired stranger, who towered above the rest of the congregation. Finally, unable to contain her curiosity, she turned to Tom and whispered.

"Did you spot Lizzy? Who is that man with her?"

"William Darcy."

She hissed back at her husband, "You know him?"

"Shhh... Fanny... Yes, I know him."

"Well?"

"Nice chap." He replied noncommittally.

"Thomas Bennet, you will give me a conniption right this second if you don't tell me more," she whispered back furiously.

"Fanny, quiet down, we're in the middle of the sermon."

"Who is he?"

Knowing the only way to quiet her persistent grilling, he gave her the answer she was desperately looking for.

"He's worth millions, Pemberley Plastics."

She mouthed a silent, "Oh..." and smugly settled her ample derriere on the pew, a self-satisfied smile curling her lips. After a few minutes, she whispered back, "Let's invite them for brunch - today." Tom Bennet raised his eyebrows and sighed.

Sitting in the pew, William's palm enveloping hers, she felt a growing sense of peace, of serenity. She lost herself in fantasies of walking down the aisle, holding an infant at the christening font, sitting in the pew surrounded by children... it all felt right, real, so natural. She was bathed, suffused in pure contentment.

Her new found quietude proved to be short-lived, on exiting the church she heard Fanny's shrill voice in the distance. "Lizzy!...Over here!"

Gritting her teeth, she whispered to William. "That's my darling mother, in the feathered hat, over by the minister."

He gripped her hand and they walked over toward the Bennets.

"Mom, dad, I'd like you to meet William Darcy, a friend of mine, he's visiting for the weekend."

"Mrs. Bennet, a pleasure to meet you. Tom, good to see you again."

Elizabeth frowned, she knew her father and William were acquainted, but had not expected a cordial greeting. Tucking the information away into a corner of her mind, she turned to her mother.

"Well, we must be on our way ..."

"Nonsense, honey, since I hardly get to see you these days," she threw Elizabeth a pointed look, "I insist that you and Mr. Darcy join us for brunch, in fact why don't you just come with us in the car. There, it's all settled."

A silent look of mutual understanding passed between William and Tom Bennet over the women's heads. At the end of their discussion of the previous day, they had agreed upon a mutually satisfactory plan; Tom would speak to Elizabeth about Darcy's proposals but the pregnancy would remain confidential, until Elizabeth felt ready to announce it. The success of the strategy hinged upon Darcy paving the way first, and disclosing to Elizabeth his reasons for meeting with her father. Both men were convinced their plan was sound and fair. After speaking with Tom, William realized that he had indeed not erred in his judgment. Bennet had appreciated his forthright and honest approach. He had made it clear that an agreement would have been impossible if it had not been for William's show of personal integrity. This unexpected meeting in church complicated their situation. Darcy hoped fervently that Tom would keep his word, and speak to Elizabeth at a later time.

~ * ~
Seated at the rectangular Chippendale dining table he observed the sisters attentively. Kitty, a paler replica of her mother, chatted incessantly, filling any silent interludes with superficial banter. Mary, on the other hand, resembled Elizabeth; the planes of her face were harsher, more rigid, matching her cool countenance. She flinched repeatedly at her mother's inane comments. Lydia and Jane were absent. And then there was Elizabeth; she shone, a bright star in the varied constellation. He marveled at the power of genetics, at the production of such disparate personalities from a single gene pool.

Sipping pensively on her coffee, Elizabeth turned to her father.

"Dad, could I have a few words with you in the study?"

Both men exchanged swift glances, Tom nodded and left the room, Elizabeth following at his heels. Their exit opened further opportunities for Fanny to pounce on William.

"Now what type of boat did you say you had again?..."

Closing the door softly behind her, she turned to look at her father, seated in a deep brown leather chair. The study was his sanctuary, his domain. It held a decidedly masculine air in direct contrast to the remainder of the house. He and Elizabeth had spent many hours in pleasant discussion, ensconced in the leather chairs. Today, however, she remained standing.

"What, pray tell me, is the meaning of all this, dad?"

"Pardon?" Tom answered in a neutral quizzical tone while mentally readying himself for battle. Elizabeth and he rarely argued, but when they did, she was a formidable opponent.

"Dad, please don't play me for a fool. I just witnessed a very subtle, but definitely real and intense silent communication between yourself and William. Why?"

Sighing resignedly, he motioned to a nearby leather chair.

"Why don't you sit down and I'll explain. First, William had asked me to refrain from speaking to you until he had a chance to explain the entire situation. I guess by the look of things, the opportunity has not arisen yet... so here goes... William and I had a meeting yesterday."

She caught her breath. He had mentioned a business meeting ... but had he intentionally withheld information from her? If so, why?

"You know I don't mince my words Lizzy, so I'll be blunt and direct. He asked my permission for your hand in marriage."

She gasped. This turn of events was entirely unexpected! Why had he done that? Part of her heart swelled with pride at his gallantry, the other bristled at being excluded from the entire process.

"And what was your answer, father?" she enquired, a rising anger scorching her voice.

"Before I give you my answer, let me explain... we spent several hours talking about you, how the two of you met, his background, his plans... we discussed Meryton and Pemberley and finally, Wickham."

"Wickham? He told you about me and Wickham?" The anger boiled over.

"Yes, I know about Wickham and I'm sorry that you had to suffer so much because of that scoundrel... Lizzy... you should have said something... I feel somewhat responsible... and now with Lydia and him..." "It was my mistake dad" she answered shakily "but we need to help Lydia, somehow."

"I know, I will speak to Lydia." He rubbed his eyes, all of a sudden appearing old, tired and beaten.

"So what did the two of you decide about Wickham?"

"It's complex ... and highly confidential."

"I think my little brain can handle it," she answered sarcastically.

Tom proceeded to outline William's plan. She sat incredulous, mouth agape, hanging on his every word, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. What had initially begun as resentful anger, turned to rage, an ugly primitive rage blocking any rational thoughts. They had deliberately left her out, blocking her, protecting her, believing her to be entirely too vulnerable!. She had rarely felt so disempowered in her life. Voice dripping with scorn and derision she lashed out.

"And what else did you two men plan? Where we will live? Where I will work? The color of my next car? The names of our children..." She halted, horror suffusing her face.

"HE DIDN"T ! You know! He told you that too? Oh. My God! Are you both crazy despotic rulers intent on controlling my entire life? What am I? Some pathetic pawn in your little game?" She jumped up, and marched toward the door. Tom Bennet sat still, as if pinned to his chair. He had never witnessed such a display of blazing fury in his daughter.

"Elizabeth... please... try to be calm and use your reasoning..."

"How dare you lecture me after what you have done?"

"Elizabeth... my answer to him was yes." Hand gripping the doorknob, she swung around and fixed him with a glacial stare.

"Oh. Really? Well, I have not said yes." She stormed out, slamming the door behind her.

She stood at the door of the dining room, her cheeks flushed, eyes ablaze. Watching her out of the corner of his eye, he felt a passionate heat rising up within him, tempered by the uncertainty of what lay in store for him. In an aloof and frosty voice she commandeered his attention.

"William may I please speak to you in private, outside, NOW."

Irritated by the rude interruption, Fanny Bennet was on the verge of reproaching her daughter, but one glance at her and she stopped in her tracks. Something big was brewing here...

William turned to his hostess and in a most charming manner thanked her for the brunch. "It was a pleasure to meet you and your family, thank you once again, Mrs. Bennet."

"Why, William..." she twittered." You are always welcome to visit, and remember, you promised us a jaunt on that boat of yours..."

He followed her to the garden at the back of the house. Leaning back against a thick trunk, he crossed his arms and with a defiant thrust of his pelvis, observed her intently. Elizabeth's fury was fully unleashed. She stalked back and forth in front of him, arms gesticulating wildly.

"Franchement! C'est insupportable! Tu es #&*%#^&$ !*& !!!!" She spewed expletive after expletive, all aimed at him with deadly precision, some quite unfamiliar even to William's seasoned ears. His face remained a study of unaffected control, a mask. After a considerable amount of time had elapsed, she stopped and stood in front of him, challenging him. He tilted his head, as if weighing his options and spoke.

"You were swearing... in French."

Her eyes, widened incredulously. "Is that all you have to say to me?"

"No."

"And?"

"I want to fuck you right now, Elizabeth, my love."

She had been expecting apologies, rationalizations, and intellectualizations. All those she could handle, could maneuver with skill and finesse. But, this... this unexpected leveling of the playing field took her by complete surprise. She was stunned. And because of it, her fury dissipated into a mere shadow of its former self. And, at a complete loss, denuded of her usual weaponry, she laughed. She laughed so hard, that tears came to her eyes. William remained silent. The orbs of his eyes dark with need and want, yet holding back, for now.

She reached out and held his hand. The touch was electrifying.

"Let's get the hell out of here."

Tom Bennet observed the unfolding scene through his study window. Even to his untrained eye, the body language he glimpsed was most telling, riveting "She's finally met her match..."

They walked back to the Marina in complete silence, holding hands. The exertion did nothing to relieve their pent up tension, rather, it became a heightened urgency screaming insistently for attention and relief.

They climbed on board and staggered to the main stateroom, Elizabeth virtually dragging William behind her.

"On the bed, now," she commanded.

He obliged, a slow smile upturning his lips.

He lay still and fought the urge to reach for her; he couldn't stop his gaze from devouring her. She sensed it, and looked at him, and smiled. Undressing herself with seductive slowness she hovered above him. With steely determination, he held himself back, letting her urgency build, letting her grow hot and fevered, her kisses increasingly demanding.

He sank back into the pillows and let her take the lead, take control, let her have her way. He understood she desperately needed to do so. And so he obliged. She kissed him wildly, her soft flesh pressing caress after intimate caress upon him, driving him, pushing him. He gritted his teeth and drank in every minute.

She explored every taut muscle, every crevasse, touching , kissing, licking. It was pure bliss, and it had just begun. He wallowed in the heat waves, hot becoming hotter. Sliding her fingers through his hair, she let her lips, her tongue, taunt him, challenge him. And she could feel his response.

Slowly she undressed him, he was incredibly aroused; the steely length of him rode against her hip, hot and urgent. Shifting, she lay fully atop him, settling his erection between her thighs, finding the particular movement that most evocatively stroked him. And she felt his already taut muscles tightening further. Trapping his lips between hers, she put her heart and soul into a slow deliberate undulation. And he answered, she could feel his need flare and swell, hard became harder. With a gasp, she floated above him and let herself down enveloping him in her heat, deeply, to the very hilt. He caught his breath, and locked his jaw, tight, gripping his lust with a will of iron.

"Yes!" he gasped.

She drew back and sank deep again, slow, controlled thrusts, holding to a steady rolling rhythm until she was burning. Until hot and heated and awash with fervour, she clung to him, cleaved to him. Her desperation, her need, turned frantic. Sinking deeply, splaying her fingers onto his chest, she gasped, and arched. Senses whirling, anchored on his impaling strength, she rocked him wildly. Burying her anger, her resentment in a sea of pure pleasure. He was having a hard time clinging to his reins, she could sense it, so she rode him a little harder, a little higher, sinking even deeper.

Fingers sinking into flexing sinews, lips parted as she breathed, hair a burning veil about her, she took him to the next level. He let out a strangled gasp. The heat within him was a raging furnace, and still he held on. Pushing up on his broad chest, she suddenly withdrew and hovered barely touching him, rotating her hips. She was being ruthless, and he knew it. In a gravely whisper he begged.

"Don't stop, please."

And leaning forward she sunk onto him, sliding effortlessly, deep onto his willing shaft. And she took him to another level. He closed his eyes, gasping, drawing ragged breaths. At that moment she was his goddess and he her priest, serving her. She was his temple. Deeply buried within her, he recognized her as a true and equal mate, and acceptance set in. Opening his eyes, his breathing beyond ragged, he surged into her and let his wits, his senses take flight, surrendering to her completely.

And she took him to the next peak, the one he had not known existed. Rigid, tense, coiled tight as a spring, he shattered in an unrestrained flow of pure bliss. Only then, flushed and glistening, did she join him and collapsed in a coalescence of pulsing contractions and ripples seeping through her body. Eyes closed, completely disoriented, they clung to each other in a devastatingly spent and intimate embrace. Anger, resentment, wounded pride replaced by the newfound understanding of their growing love.

Chapter 25

"I would fly you to the moon and back if you'll be... if you'll be my baby."
From song by Savage Garden.

Flu Cure: One quart Scotch, one quart whole milk. Warm the milk. Drink the Scotch. Throw away the milk. If it does not cure you, you will not care.

The to and fro lull reminded him of her hips, her swaying motion, a sensual rhythm begun during the afternoon and reprised throughout their torrid night. He lay on the bed, still and silent in the predawn quietude. Sinewy legs dusted with dark hair stretched out languidly before him. A crumpled white sheet draped artlessly about his narrow hips. His toned expanse of chest rose up and down with the steady rhythm of each breath. Arms crossed casually behind his head cradled a mess of dark curls. He appeared the very picture of satiated manhood, all guards down - Adonis in repose.

Focusing on a far away pin point of light beyond the opened hatch of sky light, he let his mind wander; a luxurious weaving of sights, scents and tactile recollections. God... She was amazing. She had taken him by complete surprise. Her possession of him had been a veritable erotic journey, one he had never allowed himself to experience before, one he would remember for a long time.

He sighed. A deep, mellow, contented sigh.

Turning over, cradling her supple back, he inhaled the sweet scent of her neck. Memories of the night flooded back. Memories of her sighs and moans, her endearments, her soft glistening skin, the look in her eyes... She had thrown down the gauntlet and after regrouping his stamina, he had summoned his considerable skill, his experience, and created - masterminded - a complex and most complete seduction. She had soared with abandon, just as he had, and it had felt so right and so good to give back his all, spirit and soul.

Such moments were rare for William. Their rarity stemmed from his stringent work ethic and adherence to a rigid code of self-control. Their rarity stemmed from his fluency in the language of sex, but not the language of making love.

Elizabeth had a way about her, when they were intimately entwined, she had a way of melting the last vestige of resilience, the last knots of tension. No woman he'd known in the past had held that power. And he'd been with many women. In the last year, the luster of the chase had worn off and he'd sought a meaningful relationship. Or so he had thought. Until she came along. Loving Elizabeth had shone a new light on his previous relationships. There was no comparison. She was melting sun - the others had been slate hard coldness.

A slow smile turned the corner of his lips. What she lacked in experience was more than balanced by her innate sensuality. Part of him was overjoyed at being the first to unlock her private world - to plumb its depths - to realize with astonishment the richness of those very depths. Part of him stood back with awe and wonder at the singular privilege of witnessing her sensual emergence. He sighed again, and brushed her breast with his hand, ever so gently.

He had drunk in every last burst of her passion, knowing full well that it had been fuelled at first by anger, anger at him. Where others may have felt confusion or resentment at Elizabeth's show of fortitude - he reveled in it.

He had misjudged her.

Beneath the maddeningly elusive, swift thinking, feminine exterior lay a core of pure steel, a force to be reckoned with. For some time now, he'd known that challenge brought out the best in him - made him strive for a higher plane. Elisabeth had challenged him and he'd risen to meet her call. For that he would always be grateful. He cherished her glimpses of vulnerability, for they allowed him to protect, to coddle her, but beneath it all lay that strong and willful core, a beautiful spirit, his equal. And last night, their enlightened fusion had blown the remnants of his previous misconceptions about her, about women, to smithereens.

In between lovemaking they had spoken for hours, touching on much that was close to both their hearts. And with some reticence they had very gently converged on the pregnancy, the baby. He was acutely aware of her need for time, for space. Yet, he so ached to speak of their future together, to propose marriage again. Several times he'd been on the verge, and caught himself, reprimanded himself and resorted to the well-worn armor of self-control. The time would come... and there was much to be gained by waiting... it was just damn hard some days.

Molding himself to her curves, he let his fingers rest lightly on her softly rounded belly. Soon there would be three of them... The very thought was exhilarating. Yes, there was an inherent challenge to their situation, but again, he embraced it with open arms. He knew beyond a doubt that they would love and nurture this new life, to the best of their ability, together. Any other options did not enter his mind. Closing his eyes, he luxuriated in warm images; a babe suckling at her breast, a first birthday, a first bicycle ride... Elizabeth at his side, he by her side. His musings flowed back and forth between reality and fantasy, mirroring the gentle sway of his boat in the water. His body and mind basking in the glow of the night's luxurious tides, Elizabeth cradled in his arms, safe and slumbering.

~ * ~

"Jane, honey, it's Charles... If you're home, could you pick up the phone?... I'm running twenty minutes late for our outing today."

"Hullooh... Atchoo!..."

"Janey, are you sick? You sound awful."

"Yup... I've got this terrible flu... high fever... I've been in bed all day and I'm miserable as hell."

"Oh."

"Charles, I'm sorry, I know that you had the whole day planned as a surprise and..."

"Hey, it's alright. You're allowed to get sick but I was under the impression that you were an invincible woman !"

She chuckled. "Only when I'm well, honey. When I get sick I can be a real pain in the butt... ask Lizzy."

"Can I come over then?"

"I'm a mess, baby, do it at your own risk."

"Honey, I'd risk the plague for you..."

"Hrrmph.."

"See you soon!"

Charles let himself in. The entire house was unusually quiet and still, Mr. Collins nowhere to be found. He tiptoed into the kitchen, relieving himself of several parcels and began foraging through cupboards and drawers. Finally, he climbed up the stairs, gingerly balancing a tray filled with food and drink. Edging through Jane's partially opened door he smiled and shook his head at the sight greeting him.

Propped up on several pillows, hair pinned up in a messy ponytail and plastered to her forehead; she was a sight for sore eyes. The distinct smell of mentholatum wafted toward him and he noticed dollops of the clear jelly dotting her red and swollen nose. Her eyes were glassy and puffy. She sported a pink and white night shirt, wrinkled and haphazardly buttoned about her neck. Covering her were two large duvets, from under which peaked out fuzzy yellow slippers. Piles of strewn magazines and crumpled Kleenexes finished off the tableau. To Charles, she had never looked more sweet and fetching.

"Hi sweetie! I brought you some chicken soup from that deli down the street... Jane, why are you buried under two duvets?"

She looked up at him with a guilty air. "I'm trying to sweat out my fever."

"Did you take any Tylenol, Aspirin, Ibuprofen...?"

"No, I don't believe in that stuff."

"Honey, that's just plain silly...You've got a high fever, you're dehydrated..."

"God... you M.D.'s are all the same... you sound just like Lizzy."

"Speaking of which, where is she today?"

"Out with Georgie, this is the second weekend in a row they've been hunting for some damn fountain for the garden. I never knew my sister had this fascination with fountains, if you ask me, since she can't see William the next best thing is to spend time with his sister..."

"Hey, you're being grouchy."

"See... I warned you."

"Honey, take some Tylenol and get rid of at least one duvet."

She stuck her chin out defiantly. "Nope."

Charles sighed in exasperation. Deciding to change tacks, he settled himself beside her and began spoon feeding her the steaming chicken soup.

"Mmmm... this stuff is good."

"Now open up some more, honey..."

"You're so sweet Charles... Atchooo!...Why don't you tell me where we were supposed to go today."

"No, can't, it's a special surprise."

Looking crestfallen, her chin started quivering. " Honey, please.... I'm sick and I ruined your day... teeellll me."

"Finish your soup first."

"Nope."

"If I tell you, will you let me give you some Tylenol?"

Jane looked at him pleadingly with glazed and rheumy eyes. He laughed out loud at her pitiful attempts to sway him.

"Alright, a few more spoonfuls of soup, and I'll tell you."

Mission accomplished, he settled himself on the bed, and circled his arms around her shoulders, gently stroking her hair.

"The plan was to drive up to Hockley Valley..."

"What's in Hockley Valley?" she demanded impatiently, plucking at the duvet around her.

"Shhh..." He settled her head into the crook of his shoulder and felt her body relax. " There is a resort known for its hot air balloons."

"Oooh... I've never been in one of those!"

"We would have loaded up the balloon with you, me and a picnic basket... Floated above the tree tops to a special valley in the woods... strewn with wildflowers..."

"Aaargh... I'm so peeved off now!"

"Landed the balloon and spread out a lovely blue blanket... the color of your eyes... on the grass."

"I think I'm going to cry, Charles..."

He removed a few stray wisps of hair from her forehead. " Don't cry honey... Now where were we... Oh yes... opened up our picnic basket and..."

"What was supposed to be in the basket?"

"Strawberries and Champagne."

She looked up at him with wide blue eyes. "Why Champagne?"

His voice dropped to a whisper and he cupped her face in his hands, intently searching her eyes. "Because... once I would have fed you the strawberries and plied you with Champagne, and thoroughly kissed those luscious lips of yours..."

"Yes...?"

"I would have told you how much I love the softness of your skin, the sound of your voice, the way we touch, the joy you bring in my life with your crazy ways. The way you can be so good and oh so bad at the same time. I would have told you how you have captured my heart and my soul, how you are the closest to heaven that I will ever be... I would have slipped this out of my pocket..."

Charles reached into his pocket and pulled out a blue velvet box, opening the lid, he took Jane's hand and lovingly placed a sparkling oval sapphire surrounded by diamonds on her finger. "and said... Will you marry me Jane Bennet?"

Jane's face was strewn with tears; large droplets streamed down her face and flushed cheeks. Reaching over, he gently wiped the tears away with a tissue and kissed her lips, her cheeks, murmuring. "And you would have said...?"

"Oh... Charles... yes... yes!"

"Baby, you've made me the happiest man in the world!"

He cuddled and cradled her for a very long time, rocking her gently imparting all his love and devotion into the comforting embrace. Jane lay like a limp doll in his arms, stunned and exhilarated at the same time. Finally, she whispered hoarsely. "Charles?"

"Yes?"

"I'll take the Tylenol now."

He smiled wickedly. "It's alright, baby... I put some in your soup."

~ * ~

The fax machine spewed page after page of fine print. Anne shook her head in amazement. She had been working twelve-hour days in the past three weeks while William crisscrossed the States. These new developments between Pemberley and Meryton were most intriguing. Odd that everything was so confidential... Oh. Well... Let William handle all the details.... It was his area of expertise after all. She hardly recognized him these days... Incredible how some men could change... She wondered at the reasons behind such a dramatic transformation. She would find out in due course. She always did. Her thoughts turned to the well-deserved holiday in the Hamptons a few days away... New York became so unbearable in the summer months...

Wickham leaned back in his black leather chair - rocking back and forth. Something was up in the air with Meryton. He could smell it. Old Bennet was acting a little strange these days, overly reserved. His late night foraging in the office had yielded nothing. Suddenly, an idea struck him... What if Bennet was planning to step down... set his succession plan into motion? He analyzed for the umpteenth time the competition. It was between him and John Foster, V.P. of Finance, of that he was quite sure. With grisly single-mindedness he picked up the phone, dialing John's extension and set his plan into motion. Several months ago, he'd uncovered some juicy dirt on John's first marriage - excellent ammunition for his grand scheme.

~ * ~

"Good evening sweetheart."

"William, I miss you so much..." she whispered into the phone, cradling it around her ear, settling herself into her down pillows, anticipating the delicious pleasure of their nightly chats.

"I miss you, too, Elizabeth, how are you feeling?"

"Tired, nervous about your plan, fat... my tummy's growing."

He chuckled softly. "I love your tummy... It's supposed to grow, you know?... Isn't it great about Charles and Jane?"

"Aha... She's been floating for the last three weeks... can't seem to bring her back down to earth."

"I know what you mean... I spoke with Charles tonight and I think he's got a permanent grin plastered on his face..."

An awkward silence ensued.

"When are you flying down again, William?"

"Thursday... Will you be at the Meryton meeting on Friday morning?"

"I would not miss it."

"Good, now about our weekend in the Laurentians... Can we leave following the meeting?"

"Sure."

"Jane and Charles have cleared their schedules as well, Elisabeth... can Fitz and Charlotte come along too?"

"I'm fine with that... if you are... can you believe they're going out? I'm so happy for both of them."

"Me too, I like the idea of Fitz's affections being occupied with another woman."

"Oh... William, you have nothing to worry about!"

"Right."

"I've seen Georgie a fair bit..."

"And?"

"She's really doing much better, the clinic is discharging her at the end of the month. She responded beautifully to the new treatment. She'll be just fine."

"I think you and Jane helped a lot as well. Thank you."

"I really enjoy her company. You know, she's got quite a wickedly dry sense of humor beneath her shyness."

"Tell me about it, I've been on the receiving end of it for years... Elizabeth..."

"Yes?"

"Don't you have another ultrasound coming up soon?"

"Yes, Thursday at five in the afternoon."

"Can I come along?"

"We would love it... if you came along."

"We?"

"Our baby and I..."

"Je t'aime, mon amour... a Jeudi."

"Bonsoir, mon amour." Click.

Chapter Twenty Six

A word of warning, dear reader, this chapter is not for those with delicate sensibilities.

"Let him know, on the contrary, that his punishment which has been decreed by providence, is only delayed by my present determination, and although he escapes it in this world, it awaits him in another, and he is only exchanging time for eternity."

Excerpt from Chapter Ninety, "The Meeting" from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.

Dead Lawyer: Dry Vermouth, White Crème de Cacao, Maraschino Liqueur. Fill a shaker half full with ice cubes. Pour all ingredients into shaker and shake well. Strain drink into a cocktail glass and serve.

The electricity was palpable. It suffused the room in a thick and heavy fog. Tom Bennet , as majority shareholder and CEO of Meryton had called a meeting of all remaining shareholders, corporate directors and senior executives. The agenda was highly confidential - no documentation had been sent out - curiosity and speculation were running high among the occupants assembled in the dark paneled boardroom. In their capacity as directors and minority shareholders, both Jane and Elizabeth sat around the highly polished mahogany oval.

Standing out, a bold stroke of color among a sea of blue and gray, Jane sported a screaming hot pink pant suit. In contrast Elisabeth sat by her side, subdued and elegant in a black knit sheath accented with white collar and cuffs. She hadn't slept well the night before and it showed in the shadowy semicircles under her eyes, in the drawn pallor of her skin. She felt taut with tension, nerve fibers stretched to their snapping point. Unlike the other assembled parties, she had intimate knowledge of the upcoming agenda, anticipating it and dreading it simultaneously.

To Wickham, seated near the head of the table, she looked stunning. He could not tear his eyes away from her. And she knew it. Despite his ongoing dalliance with Lydia, Elizabeth preoccupied his mind on a constant basis. Thoughts of her, images of her, were a constant unbroken thread in the daily fiber of his life. She had become his obsession. She stood up and walked toward the serving board, heavy under an assortment of refreshments. Wickham followed her figure beneath his lowered eyelashes.

She seemed different... He'd memorized her curves months ago... These curves were foreign to him... His eyes narrowed to small snake-like slits, and the realization hit him with full force. Damn it! She was pregnant! His eyes quickly scanned her hands ...No engagement ring... interesting... maybe all was not peachy perfect between her and that bastard Darcy... He had not failed to notice Jane's stunning sapphire the minute she entered the room. Lydia had apprised him of Jane's engagement some time ago. He'd known Charles from a distance for years, and tolerated him at best. Shaking off his musings, he refocused his mind on the carefully scripted speech lying in wait in his right breast pocket. Old Bennet hadn't offered anything to him - yet, but Wickham was convinced of the eventual outcome of this meeting. All other options had been craftily dealt with...

Elizabeth could sense Wickham's stare boring through her back; it penetrated her skin, her soft tissues and grated at her spine, she could feel it in her spinal cord sending electrical currents of foreboding down to her very toes. Summoning all her professional training, she steadfastly refused to return his stare. The only sign of strain - a subtle trembling of her hands as she poured herself a cup of tea. He noticed it, and smirked.

Jane lounged back in her chair, focusing on Wickham's profile, drumming her pink tipped nails impatiently on the tabletop. You son of a bitch... I can't wait to get my hands on you... And so it was into this oppressive and tension filled atmosphere that Tom Bennet strode in, followed by his executive assistant. The scattered conversations stilled to a quiet hush as twenty expectant pairs of eyes focused in his direction. In a voice punctuated with purpose and determination, he began.

"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for attending today's meeting. As you know, Meryton has experienced a challenging fiscal year. We weathered a difficult lawsuit but also scored a significant victory in Indonesia. Overall, net profits have risen by twenty percent and we're in a healthy financial position, poised for growth and expansion. A few weeks ago, a potential buyer approached me..." A surprised murmur rose around the table. "Meryton has never officially been on the selling block, however, one of my business tenets has always been to consider any serious offer from the right buyer. And indeed such a buyer has appeared. The offer I have received would result in significant gains for both Meryton and its shareholders. After careful deliberation and consultation I have decided to accept this offer and transition out of my present position at Meryton over the next year."

The hush of voices rose to a higher decibel, chairs scraped noisily against the marble floor, Wickham began scribbling frantically on the legal pad before him. Focusing his eyes on Elizabeth, Tom Bennet sent a subtle smile in her direction. It spoke volumes to her.

" Without further ado, allow me to introduce to you the next owner and CEO of Meryton, Mr. William Darcy, representing our new parent company, Pemberley. I would also like to congratulate our very own John Foster on his promotion to president of operations. He will effectively be running the company day to day, once my transition is completed."

The voices rose to a fevered pitch, scattered clapping could be heard here and there among a few shouted congratulations directed toward John Foster. Elizabeth willed herself to concentrate on the opening door. Jane triumphantly caught Wickham's furious reaction and the cracking sound of a pencil breaking in his clenched fist.

Elizabeth's heart began thudding violently as William strode in. She'd never observed him in a corporate setting; his presence was arresting. She caught her breath. By far the tallest man in the room, his broad shoulders spoke of agile strength beneath the form-fitting navy Armani. He looked elegant, intense and powerful. The look in his eyes was focused; it bespoke of sharp intelligence and... ferocity. He searched the table, his eyes alighting but momentarily on Elisabeth. It was enough, her breathing regained a steadier rhythm.

The deep, commanding voice began, "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your welcome. I know this news come as a surprise to most of you. Tom and I have spent the last few weeks preparing a detailed summary, which I will hand out momentarily. But first, let me explain Pemberley's rationale for purchasing Meryton - given the somewhat rocky history linking both companies."

A few embarrassed laughs erupted about the room, they were quickly silenced; William's authoritative style did not leave much room for gratuitous humor. "Pemberley has consistently been on the look out for strategic partners in foreign markets and at home. With the emergence of the Indonesian market, new opportunities...."

As his voice echoed through the room, and explained in a succinct and direct manner the awaiting fate of Meryton, Elisabeth could feel the negative tide ebb away, replaced by a surge of energetic excitement and expectancy, William at its very center. She was momentarily awestruck by his charisma, his masterful ability to sway a group of hostile strangers. Her heart filled with pride and admiration, as well as gratitude. The merging of Meryton and Pemberley would allow her father to slowly ease into retirement, knowing that his company was in solid hands. It would enable Elisabeth and Jane to continue their foundation work on a much larger scale. William had been exceedingly generous with Meryton and her father. She was not fooled by any of it, neither was Tom Bennet. Without her relationship to William the entire plan would never have come to fruition. She snapped back to William's words.

"In closing, I would like to acknowledge the impressive legacy that Tom Bennet has built from scratch. His passionate dedication to this company has been the driving force for its outstanding success to date. I trust that with your cooperation and support, we can build on Tom's success in the future years to come. Thank you. Now, if I could ask Mr. George Wickham to follow Tom and I into the smaller boardroom..."

Wickham squared his shoulders, stood up and strode defiantly out of the hushed room, acutely aware of the curious stares directed at his back.

Tom Bennet silently motioned to a seat. William remained standing. In a voice entirely devoid of any emotion, focusing on a point above Wickham's head, William began speaking.

"The manila envelope across from you holds Meryton's exit package proposal. It entitles you to one year's salary and benefits, provided you comply with the following additional clauses. One, you are to sell all you shares back to Pemberley at present market value. Two, you must agree not to seek gainful employment with any direct competitor of either Meryton or Pemberley. Three, you are not to come within a twenty five kilometer radius of any member of the Darcy and Bennet family, this includes Lydia Bennet."

Wickham's face turned an ashen shade of gray. He sputtered out with venom. "This is complete and utter madness... you have nothing on me! After eight years of sweat and hard work, this is all I get? I'm going to hire the best damn litigation team and sue your asses off!"

Tom Bennet spoke up for the first time - a sad look of regret and disappointment tingeing his tired features.

"George, you will do no such thing! The offer is more than generous... you have gravely disappointed me son."

Wickham's voice rose to a shrill pitch. "What the hell have I ever done to your company? Surely you're not punishing me for sleeping with your daughters?"

Tom flinched visibly at the last statement.

Williams voice cut in, cold and detached. "We had several security cameras installed three weeks ago, and have in our possession six rolls of film detailing your activities during and after work hours."

Fine beads of perspiration broke out on Wickham's forehead, a small muscle began twitching violently by his right eye.

"We have evidence of you stealing documents from Tom's and John's offices, and engaging in sexual acts with several female employees during and after hours. Meryton refuses to condone such behavior in its employees. You have exactly one hour to sign our proposal - after which it will be null and void. In signing, you relinquish any right to pursue legal action against Meryton, Pemberley, its employees and members of the Darcy and Bennet family. We in turn will not press charges against you. Goodbye George."

Without looking back, he strode out of the room. Wickham turned to Tom Bennet, pleading with frantic desperation.

"Tom, please..."

Tom Bennet raised his hand, palm up, and Wickham stopped mid sentence; he was familiar with the gesture, having witnessed its usage during many a negotiation. He had been summarily dismissed. Gritting his teeth, he stormed off toward his office, leaving Tom Bennet slumped in his chair, shaken with rage and disillusionment.

Flinging the door open as he staggered into his office, he was greeted by the sight of hot pink stilettos propped on his desk, attached to a leggy blonde casually lounging in his chair. Jane's head was buried in a copy of Penthouse. On hearing the door violently swing open, she lowered the magazine just below her eyes and perused him with an icy stare, dripping with sarcasm.

"So this is what you read on company time, George?"

"Get the hell out of my office, NOW!"

"Not so fast pretty boy, I have a little score to settle with you."

"FUCK OFF, JANE!"

She stood up and sauntered toward him, a full head taller, and looked down at him with scorn.

"Now George, that's no way to treat a lady... Having a bad day honey?"

Wickham's last shred of self-resolve broke and he raised his hand - intending to slap her face - hard. Instead, she moved with lightning speed and countered with her signature karate maneuver - his body landing with a thud - spread-eagled on the floor. Momentarily stunned, he came to.

"What the fuck ! I can charge you for assault you bitch!"

She raised a mocking eyebrow and positioned a pink stiletto right over his crotch.

"I'll plead self-defense honey, no one would believe you... don't you ever try that again, understood?"

Exerting firm pressure, she ground her shoe into his groin.

"That, is for Georgie."

He winced.

"That, is for Lizzy."

He groaned.

"And that is for Lydia, and all of the other women you have used for your sick pleasure over the years."

"Aaarrgghh!!!..."

"Arrivederci, baby."

She sashayed off, then stopped at the door, turning around she expertly flung the magazine at him. It landed squarely on his face. With a satisfied smile, she walked off, leaving the door wide open.

Chapter 27 Part One

What the Hell: One ounce Vermouth, one ounce Gin, one ounce Apricot Brandy, one dash Lemon Juice. Stir all ingredients with ice cubes in an old fashioned glass and serve.

William had insisted on a limousine. As it rolled to a smooth halt a few feet away from the waiting jet, Jane let out a low whistle and turned to her younger sister.

"Holy Fuck! I was expecting a little Lear jet - and instead the man flies a goddamn Gulfstream V. Maybe he'll let me sit in the cockpit!"

Elizabeth shook her head in wonderment, not at the plane, rather, at her sister; she rarely failed to surprise her nowadays. Indeed, since the engagement, Jane seemed to relish shocking and titillating those around her. Her upcoming nuptials to Charles appeared to have unleashed a wave of outrageous behaviors, each one more wicked then the last. Elizabeth was sure it stemmed from Jane's fear of becoming a staid and lackluster matron, a last hurrah was in order...

"Since when have you acquired expertise in business jets?"

"A woman needs to possess broad depth of knowledge these days, never know when it will come in handy..."

"Oh, Janey, stop it - it's just a plane!"

Jane raised her brows. "I'll let that one go... but just because you've had a tough day... Though I actually quite enjoyed my meeting with George... I'm getting those stilettos bronzed, you know."

"Can we please change the topic... you promised me you'd behave this weekend."

"Cross my heart!"

"I've heard that one before." Elizabeth muttered under her breath as they alighted from the limousine. Both women strode down the tarmac, a vivacious blonde and a stunning brunette. William's tall figure observed the duo from his perch atop the roll-away stairs.

He had missed her so. He'd had very little time to spend with her since his arrival back in Canada. The last two days had been an intense flurry of activity, preparation, and last minute consultations with Tom Bennet. Finally, the tension had eased and become replaced by a most heady ache, a visceral need to hold her, love her, claim her again as his very own. The adrenaline wave he'd been riding the last few weeks was peaking and he needed a release... soon. Noticing his jean-clad figure, Jane turned to her sister.

"Look, Corporate Raider Darcy has been replaced by Smoldering Sexy-Assed Hunk!"

Elizabeth hissed at her sharply, "Janey, be quiet."

With a defiant flip of her blonde pony tail, she bounded up the steps.

"Nice set of wings captain, can she really go 6500 nautical miles at mach 0.8?"

"Been reading the specs on my plane?" William enquired, a hint of surprise in his voice.

"Maybe... you're not flying today?"

"No."

Leaning toward him she planted a swift peck on his cheek and whispered "Good call... she needs you."

He gave her a look of acknowledgement. "Thanks. And by the way, nice work with Wickham this morning."

"Anytime, William, anytime."

Elizabeth had remained at the base of the stairs, hand poised lightly on the railing, intently observing their exchange. She never tired of studying him, noticing fresh nuances in his manner, his demeanor. He fascinated her. A subtle aura of leashed power clung to him this afternoon... a remnant of today's meeting at Meryton? Now that the long awaited day was coming to a close, the weekend away with William and her closest friends beckoned seductively. She could feel her body easing from its coiled tightness, relaxing, the tension flowing away, finally. Gazing up, she graced him with a wide-open ravishing smile and slowly, sexily, moved up the steps.

"Hey... stop that," he whispered, reaching out to her, anchoring her hips in his large hands, pulling her close - his strength palpable.

"Stop what?"

"That sultry sashay thing you do... it drives me crazy."

"Oh?"

As her mouth opened to form the rest of her words - he kissed her hard - possessively. After the day's events, his touch felt exquisite to Elizabeth. She returned the kiss, playing with his tongue, grinding her hips into his out-thrust pelvis, into the thick solid length of his hot response. Uttering a guttural sound, ringing with masculine satisfaction, he drove himself between her thighs and their two bodies locked, swaying by the opened hatch of the jet.

A voice called out from within the plane, "Mr. Darcy we're cleared for takeoff sir."

Reluctantly withdrawing from their heated clutch, he grasped her hand. "Come."

The Gulfstream had been modified to William's exacting specifications. With a capacity for twelve passengers, it boasted comfortable Italian leather seating and a small burled wood conference table. Tucked in at the back of the plane one could find a surprisingly functional kitchen, an inviting pull out couch and a large bathroom. The dark taupe interior lent it a quietly hushed air, the quietness of luxury which only serious money could buy. Charlotte waved to Elizabeth from her seat by Fitz.

"Isn't this great Lizzy!"

She smiled at her friend, noting the coziness between her and Fitz. For his part, Fitz had accepted his reprised role in Elizabeth's life; their friendship seemed deeper, more meaningful. Yes, some recessed part of him would always stay in love with her, however, now he'd given himself permission to consider intimacy with other women. William had been most generous in his acceptance of their close friendship, yet there was an unspoken male understanding, a warning, that certain boundaries were to be maintained between Elizabeth and Fitz, and that he would be held accountable if they were trespassed. Elizabeth was blissfully unaware of their subtle stand off.

Fitz stood up and gave her a chaste kiss on the forehead.

"Survived the day?"

She touched his cheek gently, and settled herself in a seat across the isle from the couple, William by her side. Turning to Fitz, she answered.

"Barely, the meeting was hard enough, but confronting Lydia with Dad was worse, she demanded to view the tapes, so Dad had to show her some unsavory snippets..."

Raising a surprised eyebrow, Fitz enquired, "How did she react?"

Elizabeth sighed. "How else? She had an emotional meltdown. I had to administer some Lorazepam; she fell asleep eventually. I feel so guilty leaving her, Fitz."

"Lizzy, you have to look after yourself as well... who's at home with her?"

"Well, mom is useless, maintaining she's under the most stress of us all, typical. Dad's exhausted and drained. So, I asked Madeline Gardiner to watch over her..."

"See, she's in good hands, then. You've got nothing to worry about." He reassured her soothingly.

William reached over toward Elizabeth and taking her hand kissed the inside of her wrist. "Relax... we're about to take off."

She looked at him, at his broad forehead, the classic planes of his nose, the uncompromisingly square chin... the deep brown eyes shining with love, concern and something else... God... he's hot and bothered right now...Is this what wielding power does to men? For his part, William was indeed hot, hot with harnessed passion for the woman sitting so close to him... his vaunted self-control was near unraveling and he now regretted with all his might the presence of everyone else on board.

Hell... this is my plane after all.

Quickly noting that cruising altitude had been reached, he stood up, and taking her hand led her to the back of the plane.

"Come, I want to show you something."

"William... I was quite comfortable in the seat."

"No, follow me."

His tone was commanding, insistent, harking back to old days. She stiffened in response. What's going on with him? Literally dragging her toward the back of the jet, he propelled her into the bathroom and shut the door, bolting it. And he crushed her into his chest, his arms closing about her, drawing her against him, caging her in. Then he kissed her - hard - plunging in, demanding. Her eyes flew open in response.

"What are you doing?"

His eyes bore into hers. "Distracting you."

"I was already distracted..." she whispered against his lips.

"Good," he answered hoarsely, fondling her breast with one hand, the other unzipping her jeans, yanking them down, impatiently. Beneath his hand her nipple tightened and he began kneading, caressing. His other hand tangled in her curls, then sliding further, pressed in, hard, stroking, and finding her molten heat, entered her.

"No..." she whispered, "not here."

"Why not? They can't hear..." his finger slid deeper - his thumb pressed, caressed - her body tightened and arched.

"But they'll know..."

"I don't give a damn." His caresses continued their tempo, increasingly forceful. Within her, sensations swirled, then rose.

"William..."

"The answer is ...no."

He countered with finality, kissing her futile attempts away... and savoring, relishing, the ripples of her release as they shattered and shot through her core.

"Oh, God..." she moaned.

William groaned, reaching down, he stripped his jeans. Free of his restriction, he pressed insistently against her. Lifting her up, he positioned her on the out jutting counter and opened her thighs. She grasped him - he was hard, rigid - blatantly and elementally male. She stroked the smooth, swollen head. Groaning, he reached down and wound his hand over hers, curling her fingers more tightly around his pulsating shaft. Eagerly, she followed his silent instruction. He let her play him, until his jaw tightened, his entire body tensed and then he pulled her hand away, away from his by now painful erection.

Grasping her hips, he drove into her with one single powerful thrust, anchoring her to the hilt, invading her with a hard and throbbing reality.

"Look at me," he demanded. And hard lips found hers. Gazes locked, they both held still. The vibrations of the aircraft reverberated through Elizabeth's core, intensified every sensation. She could barely breathe; he filled her so completely. She could feel the steady pulse of him deep inside her. Staring up at him, she saw the hard planes of his face shift, become sharper edged with reigned passion. And she understood. He needed her at this moment, needed to bury himself inside her. A glorious confidence filled her as the knowledge sunk in.

"William... let go... it's alright," she whispered through her ragged breaths.

And he did - unleashed all of his pent up tension, his fervor - into her slick, rippled sheath, driving powerfully, pounding with insistent rhythm. She rose to meet his every thrust, her breathing growing frantic, every muscle in her body quivering. Clenching her hands tight in his hair, she felt him stiffen with ferocious intensity and finally, he exploded with a force he'd never felt before, filling her with his molten liquid. Only then did she relax, as ecstasy washed through her, bathing her in its incandescent glow.

After a few minutes of stilled silence, he withdrew, reaching for a towel, blotting the warm effluvium of their passion.

"Elizabeth... thank you."

"Shhhh..." She stroked his temple, brushing stray curls from his damp forehead. A slow smile curled her lips.

"Am I to expect this each time you acquire a new venture?"

He looked at her intently; his eyes crinkled with a smile. "Yes. I acquire... and we merge."

She laughed. "Can't wait for the next one, counsel... merger and acquisition that is."

Elizabeth walked out first, flushed, hair tousled, trying desperately to saunter casually back to her seat in the narrow cabin. Fitz and Charlotte appeared deep in conversation, she sighed in relief. Then Jane caught her eye.

"Who's misbehaving Lizzy? And by the way, welcome to the Mile High Club."

Elizabeth shot her a puzzled look and settled in her seat. William followed a few minutes later, a satisfied glint in his eyes, a looser glide in his stride. As he buckled himself in, Elizabeth turned to him and queried in a hushed voice.

"What's the Mile High Club?"

He whispered the answer, nibbling on her ear.

Her eyes widened in understanding. "Oh. How will I ever live this one down?"

Chapter 27 Part Two

"It's a bawdy planet."
William Shakespeare.

Bare Cheeks: Vodka, apple juice, Grenadine, lemon juice. Fill shaker with ice cubes. Pour all ingredients into shaker and shake well. Strain drink into cocktail glass and serve.

As the orange sun arched lazily below inky green mountain tops, a white jet plane swooped down into its final graceful approach. Within its plush cabin, Elizabeth slipped her hand into the warmth of William's much larger one. Instinctively, he rubbed her palm with his thumb, concern filtering through his gaze.

"Feeling alright?"

Waves of guilt had begun washing over him, guilt over their hot tryst at the back of the plane. Now that his constricting tension had eased off, he felt... barbaric. Unmindful of the aftermath, he'd dragged her in front of an audience and purposefully ravished her to sate his own greediness. Nice going Darcy... what are you? ...some hot blooded stallion on a breeding farm? The rush of the chase, the thrill of a successful corporate kill, had always whipped up his considerable libido. This time, Elizabeth's presence had rocked his usual self-control and toppled it, a spectacular break and fall. Letting out a heavy sigh, he raised her hand to his lips and reverently graced it with a gentle kiss.

"I'm so sorry..." he murmured, his voice low and hoarse.

"For what?"

"For my ungentlemanly behavior."

She looked at him intently, tightening her hold, interlacing her tapered fingers through his.

"I don't recall resisting, William... I rather enjoyed it... You are a study in contrasts, sweetheart."

"Are you in the habit of studying me Elizabeth?"

She smiled and with her most professional "haut" voice, countered back. "Absolutely - you're a fascinating specimen - in more ways than one. Just when I think I've elucidated you, a new angle appears... maybe I'll never figure you out... how intriguing..."

"Let me get this straight... if I remain an enigma, you'll forever be drawn to me?"

"Something like that..." She smiled, her eyes twinkling. Sweeping her fingers lightly along the line of his jaw, she rested them on the fullness of his lower lip, only to have his tongue circle her forefinger lazily and trap it between his teeth. Gently withdrawing from his warmth, she tilted her head at a sultry angle and gazed at him adoringly. William gave her a look you could have poured on a waffle.

Fitz squirmed in his seat across the isle. The entire flight had been sheer torture. Elizabeth's proximity, yet distance, the obvious rendezvous at the back of the plane and now melting looks and intimate words were grating him to the very bone. He knew he had to let go... but oh... the exquisite pain of it all!

Charlotte felt strangely attuned to his dilemma. She'd grown very fond of him over the past month. They enjoyed each others' company immensely and she could sense an inordinate attraction toward the gentle giant. Funny, she was now immune to Charles' and Jane's happiness. Somehow she had to help Fitz through this; he was well worth the effort.

~ * ~

As the black Suburban barreled down snaking mountain roads, Elizabeth took in the breathtaking views about her. The picturesque town of St. Jovite was happily situated in the middle of the Laurentian mountains, anchoring a spectacular four season resort - Mt. Tremblant. Tremblant had begun as a modest skiing lodge at the turn of the century, but recently exploded into a cosmopolitan playground renowned for its glitzy visitor base. However, it somehow managed to cling to the rustic charm of bygone days spiced up by a colorful Quebecois joie de vivre. William had fallen in love with the area several years ago and purchased a log cottage on a nearby lake, Lac Richelieu. He was far enough away to enjoy peaceful solitude, yet near enough to partake in incredible skiing during the winter and hiking in warmer weather. Being the highest mountain in the area, it offered challenging hiking, mountain biking, as well as golfing near its base.

Elizabeth held her breath as William maneuvered the van down a steep gravelly hill - and let it out, on catching sight of the log home.

"Oh! It's beautiful! but so... big... I had imagined a cozy little log cabin."

Jane piped in from the back of the van. "William, do you ever do anything on a small scale?"

He craned his neck backward and shot back, grinning. "No, I don't."

The log structure stood nestled in a shallow valley dipping toward a stretch of beach. It overlooked an expanse of clear blue lake. The property was enclosed by tall pines, providing visual contrast to the red gabled roof and dark green Adirondack chairs lining a wide veranda. As Elizabeth strolled about, she took in the rugged rockery, planted with bearberry, juniper and blueberry bushes scattered amidst freshly cut grass. On the western side of the home, stood an inviting hot tub, offering sweeping views of the water and shaded by daylilies, boxwood and irises. This place is incredible... Standing by the front entrance, William gestured her in.

"Welcome to my Laurentian hideaway, Elizabeth."

Oversize honey-colored logs comprised the entire home's interior, not a straight wall in sight. A great room with cathedral windows overlooked the lake, anchored on one side by a massive stone hearth and the other exposing a cozy dining area. An atmosphere of ease and comfort prevailed; scattered couches and chairs in shades of red, forest green and inky blue dotted the shining wood plank floors. A massive antique harvest table stood invitingly in the dining space surrounded by a wall of windows, opening onto an old fashioned kitchen sparkling with copper pots hung from an antique rack. She smiled on sighting a large stuffed moose head above the fireplace. A definite scent of masculinity hung in the air.

"I love it..."

She began walking and airily touching the furnishings, running her hand over weathered pine tabletops. Motioning to the moose head, she enquired teasingly, "Do you hunt, William?"

He smiled. "Not anymore, this one belongs to Guy, the fellow who looks after the place when I'm not around. His wife, Manon, stocked up the fridge for us and left supper..." The foursome trickled in, carrying luggage and delighting in the cottage's interior.

Jane twirled around merrily. "Holy...Oops!... I mean... great taste in real estate! William, how's the skiing here?"

"Fabulous," he replied. "Do you ski Elizabeth?"

She eyed him disappointingly. "No, I don't."

"Well then, we'll have to rectify that some day, right? I'll teach you." He reassured... and our children as well...

Charlotte turned to William. "Is the lake warm enough for swimming?" "I imagine so Char, they've been experiencing heat waves this June, ... you can always warm up in the hot tub afterwards. Folks, make yourselves comfortable, there's three bedrooms upstairs - I'll let you sort it out. Elizabeth and I will be in the master suite down here." He turned to her for agreement; she nodded her head acknowledging him with a smile.

Walking toward a recessed door, he added, "Dinner will be served in half an hour. I need help with the salad, everything else is ready to go."

Jane glanced over at Charlotte. " He's a detail man, our William, you know..."

"Believe me, I know."

As the group puttered about, Elizabeth explored the massive master suite. It boasted a spectacular corner view over the lake, she could make out an island in the distance and two loons floating on the calm expanse of clear blue. Opening a French door, leading out onto the private terrace, she breathed in the cool mountain air. Turning around she faced the bed. His bed. Somehow this felt new. His bedroom on the boat had held a surreal quality. This was very real, concrete and somewhat daunting. The massive pine headboard possessed an aura of permanence, of history. A woodsy scent hung about the room. His scent. This was William's refuge, his sanctuary and she felt privileged to be within it, yet filled with trepidation at the same time. She scanned the warm plaid duvet and colorful pillows, her eyes resting on a black and white photograph perched on the nightstand. Picking it up, she gasped. It was her. She remembered the moment as if it were yesterday. They had experienced an incredible night together on his boat, in the shower... and that morning, she had told him "I love you" for the very first time, and he had inadvertently captured the moment on film, immortalizing it. Willam strode in, carrying several bags and settled them on a wooden bench at the base of the footboard.

"I see you found it."

"How did you get this picture all the way over here?"

"I had several copies made and shipped everywhere I stay, there's a larger version in the great room next door."

Edging toward him, she circled his neck with her arms, holding him tight and close. "Oh, William, you are a hopeless romantic, aren't you?"

"I am?" he asked sheepishly, kissing her nose and gently edging her toward the bed, falling back into the goose down with a soft thud, Elizabeth cradled in his arms.

"Yes, you are... and I love you so, you hunk of a man..." she whispered back, nipping at his neck, at the sensitive juncture of his shoulder line. "Hey, we'd better tend to our guests... or we'll never hear the end of it... there's tonight you know."

"Uhummm..." he purred, nibbling on her ear and trailing kisses toward her breasts.

A few feet away, beyond the closed pine door, Fitz stood staring at the black and white photograph. Her hair was sexily tangled, lush lips swollen, bathrobe seductively open to reveal a swell of breast. Her lips were parted, as if she was whispering something to the photographer... He stood for a long time, noting the glazed, satiated message in her eyes. She's never looked at you like that, and she never will - she belongs to him - let her go, you fool. And feeling a sudden constriction in his throat he stepped onto the porch and the crisp mountain air.

~*~

"Fanny, I'd like to speak to you privately, in my study," Tom demanded, finishing his after dinner coffee.

Fanny Bennet threw him a surprised look; they rarely conferred in the study, this was most incommodious and unexpected. She shook her head in exasperation. The entire day had been most vexing... What with Lydia's hysterics, and Tom's announcement of the Meryton purchase by none other than that millionaire William Darcy. Thank goodness for Madeline Gardiner, or she would have to go away to the spa again...

"Have a seat Fanny."

"Tom, don't be silly, you're treating me like some business associate, this is my house as well, I shall remain standing."

"Fine, have it your way. I want to speak to you about Lizzy."

"Lizzy? Are you not concerned about Lydia, what does Lizzy have to do with any of this? You know, your favoritism is quite transparent." She scolded, glaring at him.

"Lizzy is pregnant."

"WHAT?" She sank down in the chair with a loud thud.

"Darcy is the father. He proposed to her once. She asked for more time, she wasn't ready. He'll propose again - when, I don't know."

Fanny began fanning herself with her outstretched hand, her lips quivering in disbelief at the news.

"Does anyone consider me in any of this? My daughter, pregnant - out of wedlock. What will everyone think? Such a scandal? We must keep it a secret..."

"Fanny, stop it. I trust you will keep the information to yourself, until Lizzy makes up her mind one way or another. Darcy is a good chap. I quite like him. Actually, he's a damn fine man - or I would never have sold Meryton to Pemberley."

Tom Bennet proceeded to fill her in on the happenings of the past few weeks, including Wickham's dealings. As his words sunk in, Fanny relaxed into the chair, a covetous glint appearing in her eye.

"Fifty million did you say... not counting the Pemberley inheritance... I must speak to that girl and hurry her up, how could she have not said yes to date?"

"You will do no such thing. She needs your support right now. Elizabeth needs her mother." Standing up, he walked toward the bar.

"Scotch my dear?"

Fanny rarely drank, alcohol disagreed with her delicate constitution, but tonight she broke with her usual routine.

"Make it a double, on the rocks."

His lips curled in a smile. Handing her the glass, he looked at her intently.

"Don't be so hard on Lizzy - after all, our circumstances were not so very different three decades ago..."

Her eyes widened and she blinked innocently. "Whatever do you mean, Thomas Bennet?"

He tilted his head, raising an eyebrow.

"You know very well what I mean, Fanny," and lifted his glass in a silent toast to their past.

~*~

Dinner had been a delicious repast of tourtiere, mixed greens and homemade peach pie. Wine had flown freely and the conversation, thanks to Jane, had taken several raucous and bawdy detours. A glow of contentment and relaxation hung in the air. Elizabeth sat back in the hot tub, gazing up at the sky, letting the jets work away the last vestiges of tension in her back and legs. Her toes playfully sidled up William's muscular thighs, ending up nestled between his legs.

"Hey..." he protested, his eyes never leaving her face. While she looked at the stars, he observed her intently - memorizing the planes of her cheeks, noting their softer roundness.

"Mmmmm... this reminds of Key Biscayne, in the water, remember? By the way, whatever happened to Caroline?"

"She's back in New York."

"Does she work there?"

"She's involved with the Metropolitan Museum of Art - she actually has an art history background, Charles could fill you in with other details. I haven't heard from her for some time."

"Why is that?" She persisted, noting William's reluctance.

"Because."

"Because what?"

"Because I told her I was involved with someone else."

"You did? How did she react?"

"Not well, Elizabeth."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning, she's probably had a breast augmentation to drown her sorrows..."

"You can be a cruel man, William."

He chuckled. "Honey, I'm being kind, considering all the names she called me," he paused for effect, "but no one holds a candle to you, particularly in French, wouldn't you agree? I learned my lesson, mon amour." With a devilish grin, he toasted her with his beer.

Her toes curled around him - she pressed lightly onto his hardened ridge, sending a clear message.

"Good, I'm delighted you learned your lesson." And she took a long sip of her warm milk.

All of a sudden, high pitched shrieks reverberated through the stillness of the forest. William sat up, startled. Weaving through the pine trees, they could make out a naked female form, dashing madly, clutching a bundle of towels under her arm.

"Oh. God. That's Jane. She's stark naked, and it looks like she's got everyone else's towels. I did not know they were skinny dipping, but should have guessed..."

"Ahhh... Wicked Jane... I love your sister so..." He grinned.

Before she could answer, two male nude forms darted through the trees in hot pursuit, Charlotte bringing up the rear.

"William, there's a distinct scent of pheromones in the air, don't you think?"

He raised his eyebrows. "Shall we retire early my dear?"

"Absolutely."

~*~

Georgianna leaned back into the soft leather of the limousine, lost in her father's profile. There were so many similarities between him and William, yet the two men were very different. Edward Darcy had thick white hair, a strong aquiline nose, and the Darcy square chin. His eyes were a surprising color of cool blue, in contrast to William's warmer dark brown ones. His lips possessed a harder, thinner edge. She knew he loved her, in his own way - but wished he would show it. Edward had great difficulty demonstrating emotion of any kind. He often came across as distant and cold. Yet those who knew him well understood; the premature death of his beloved wife had shut branches of his heart permanently.

He turned and patted his daughter's hand. "You look lovely tonight, my dear."

He had kept silent throughout the drive, she reminded him too much of Anne.

Indeed, Georgie was a vision in a silvery Calvin Klein sheath, accented by a simple diamond choker. She'd been feeling much better lately, her battle with stress and anxiety appeared to be ending. She missed William terribly and hoped that all had gone well at Meryton. He'd apprised her of the plan earlier and she was confident that its execution would be flawless. If William was involved, it usually was.

"So what do you think of this Elizabeth Bennet?" Edward enquired. His curiosity was piqued. He was quite familiar with William's history with women and had given up hope that one would ever capture his heart.

Georgie smiled warmly. "She's wonderful dad. Very intelligent, beautiful and strong - she's really changed him - for the better."

"You mean he's no longer the stubborn haughty alpha male we knew so well?"

They both laughed out loud. "He's more open, less proud, much more mellow... he's quite smitten with her, but she definitely holds the reins, you know."

"Since when did you become an expert in relationships, little girl?"

"Dad..."

"I know, I know...you're not so little anymore."

~*~

The Waldorf-Astoria glittered with candlelight, lavish gowns and sparkling Champagne, surrounded by the strains of orchestra music. Fred Wentworth greeted the pair and was momentarily awestruck by the sight of Georgie. Where was the shy retiring little wisp of a girl? Who was this elegantly confident siren?

"Wow... I mean... good evening... Georgie, I hardly recognized you."

"Good evening Fred," she replied, fixing him with an amused gaze.

"I... could I... I mean... do you waltz?"

"I'd be delighted to." Resting her hand on his outstretched arm, she glided toward the dance floor.

Hmmm... Edward pondered, moving toward the open bar I feel the need for a drink quite suddenly.

Georgie was having a marvelous time. Fred proved himself to be a most attentive and skilled dancer. Funny, she'd never truly noticed him before. His tuxedo highlighted the inky blackness of his hair and the singular bottle green color of his eyes. Fred, for his part, was drifting as if in a trance... What a beautiful woman she'd become, almost overnight.

Weaving toward the bar, his hand lightly resting on the small of her bare back, he turned to her.

"White wine, Georgie?"

"Actually, I've switched to red recently, it's more to my liking."

He raised an eyebrow. "Oh."

Suddenly, a few feet behind her a familiar voice sent cold chills spiraling down her spine. She spun around to face none other than George Wickham.

"If it's not the lovely Miss Darcy..."

Controlling her breathing, focusing on keeping her face muscles still, she shot him an icy glare.

"What are you doing here? I understood you were to stay away from us."

"How the hell was I to know you'd be at the Waldorf tonight, baby cakes," he drawled, sweeping her figure up and down with snake like eyes.

She could feel Fred tightening his hold around her waist, turning to him she whispered. " I'm fine, let me handle this."

"George, leave my presence at once... or..."

"Or what, baby?" He answered, his voice dripping with scorn and insolence.

She tilted her head and smiled acidly. "Or I will call William, right this minute, and advise him that you have breached your contract - and you'll be out on your ass - honey buns."

Wickham blinked - once, twice - astonished at her response. What the hell was happening to the world? Scared shy Georgie was growing claws, sharp ones. Damn. He began backing away.

"My profuse apologies, I trust this meeting will remain between you and I?"

"You have five seconds to split George... Ooops, how clumsy of me to spill my wine on your lovely white shirt! Send me the dry cleaning bill. So long!"

She spun around and sashayed triumphantly, a puzzled Fred Wentworth trotting behind her.

~*~

Elizabeth lay contentedly in William's arms, listening to the night sounds of the forest filtering through an open dormer window, relishing the delicious warmth of William's body wrapped around her. He was drifting off to sleep, occasionally stroking her belly, her breast, as if unable to let her go, even in his sleep. She smiled to herself. He was insatiable. And she loved it. He made her feel vibrantly alive, so very wanted and desired. He'd been gentle tonight, all soft caresses, intent on her pleasure. And what bliss she had experienced under his skilled hands, and tongue, and... She sighed, a sigh replete with womanly satisfaction. All of a sudden, the insistent thud of a rhythmic banging startled her reverie. It appeared to be coming from up above. She sat up, straining to hear...Oh. Lord. It must be Jane and Charles ... After the evening's nude escapades she had hoped for a quiet night.

William stirred and raised his head, eyes heavy-lidded with oncoming slumber. "What in the world is that banging?..." he muttered sleepily.

"Jane and Charles... their bedroom is above ours, William."

He hugged her tighter, chuckling softly.

"Wrong sweetheart, that's Charlotte's room." And fell back asleep, a most contented smile on his face.

Chapter 28

"Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be..."

Robert Browning

Any drink will do...

CRACK! The sound of metal against wood reverberated among the pines and birches. William stood, legs wide apart, clad in a frayed pair of jean shorts, splitting logs of wood with a heavy axe. His broad chest glistened in the afternoon sun, black chest hairs curling in the heat, muscles rippling as he swung the large axe over his head. She rocked back on her knees, placing a few wild blueberries into a nearby wicker basket. They had spent the entire morning amiably working side by side on the grounds, Elizabeth weeding the beds and trimming bushes, William clearing a small path in the forest and now chopping wood.

Their physical outdoor exertion was invigorating and therapeutic. They both needed it. As sole owner of the Laurentian property, William took pride in attending to mundane tasks; shopping cleaning, clearing the land, all brought him an inexplicable joy... Yes, Guy and Manon helped out when he was away, but once on site, he took over. The daily work offered a grounding respite from the highly sophisticated and orderly world he inhabited in New York. He was content to share the experience with Elizabeth, understanding the importance of such things in her own life. They did not speak; it was superfluous. Each was acutely aware of the other's presence, mood, state of mind - a swift glance, a quick touch was all that was necessary to reconnect once again.

Breakfast had been a subdued affair, Jane and Charles displaying a somewhat sheepish air. Fitz had been unable to disengage his stare from Charlotte - and Charlotte - she positively glowed, an astonishing overnight transformation. Elizabeth sighed, contented with her friends' new-found happiness. The foursome had departed for the day, intent on exploring the village at the base of the mountain. They were due back for dinner. Standing up to stretch her limbs, she dusted off the dark soil from her shorts, inhaling deeply... What a beautiful setting, she could envision herself living here...

An image insinuated itself before her... A little girl, running on the freshly cut grass, dark curls flying madly about her, the sun glistening on her dewy skin, chocolate eyes, innocent yet intense, a defiant chin... William catching her in his arms and twirling her about - both collapsing on the lawn amidst shrieks and giggles... a frisson of trepidation rippled through, settling in the warmth of her belly. She'd asked for time and he had granted her wish. He was a giving man, generous and kind. When would the moment arrive again? Gossamer thin strips of uncertainty tugged at her. Did everyone experience this? If so... When did one truly know? Was it a slow revelation... or some intense flash of light? Of one thing she was certain, William had already reached that elusive level, long ago, and now, now he waited patiently by, for her answer.

He ambled up toward her - hot, glistening - muscles pumped and rippling from the physical exertion.

"Feel like a swim?"

"I think I'll watch you, instead..." she answered evasively.

Catching the wavering hitch in her voice, he queried.

"Sweet, are you not feeling well?"

"I'm just a little... tender... you know... from the last twenty four hours..."

They had made love again, that morning - on awakening - and despite William's gentle embraces, her three and a half month gestational body was beginning to rebel against such vigorous exertions. A look of sheer mortification crossed William's face. Before he could utter a word she silenced him.

"Shhh... don't feel guilty... it's normal... I just need a little rest, that's all... You know what happens to us when we're both in the water... so I'll watch you instead."

Sitting down on the floating dock, Elizabeth drew up her knees and rested her head, watching him strip off his shorts. Gloriously naked, he dove off the end of the dock. He was a powerful swimmer and in no time his freestyle covered a long stretch into the lake. Turning back, he executed a flawless butterfly and resurfaced, dripping, by her side. Handing him a towel, she teased.

"I'm glad Jane's not here."

"Why?" he asked, shaking droplets from his dark curls.

"She'd have swiped that towel away from you in an instant."

"And?"

"And I would have given her hell!"

"Why?"

"You're mine - for my eyes only, that's why"

Bending down, he kissed the top of her head, and growled, "I love it when you get possessive, hey, how about a canoe ride around the lake, we've accomplished enough work for the day."

"Sounds wonderful."

He insisted she rest, lying back against his thighs, stretched out in the canoe, flotation pillows beneath her. They moved smoothly across the stillness of the dark blue waters. In silence, Elizabeth let herself float away, on a bed of pure, sheer, private bliss. Quietly he began humming a lilting tune in his rich baritone, a ballad.

Where are you going...
Where are you going...
Won't you take me with you...
For my hand is cold and needs warmth
Where are you going...

Far beyond, where the horizon lies
Where the horizon lies...
And the land sinks into mellow blueness...
Oh please... take me with you... mmhhmmm...

His voice trailed off into the wide expanse of lake. She looked up at him.

"I didn't know you sang... it's beautiful...it sounds familiar... is it from "Godspell"?"

"Yes, it is. But I've forgotten some of the words. My mother used to sing this to me when I was a little boy, it was comforting... And then I sang it to Georgie when she was small and mom was gone... someday I'd like to sing it to our child, Elizabeth."

She remained still, her head cradled in his lap, her eyes locked on his. And she began filling with tears, rivulets streaming down her cheeks. He stilled the canoe and wiped the wetness away, tenderly.

"Elizabeth, don't cry, you're breaking my heart."

"They're happy tears, William... really."

"If you say so my love, you look tired, let's get you back..."

His paddle sliced through the water, and they glided back toward the dock. She could glimpse the red roof peaking through layers of pines.

"You have a sliver of paradise here... you're very lucky."

"I know, I'm the luckiest of men... I have you with me, by my side, that's all that counts in the end."

"Don't... or I'll cry again."

"Alright, I won't."

Having climbed back up to the property, William dashed into the cottage and came out loaded with pillows and a blanket.

"Come this way, I've got something to show you."

He led them through a cleared path, over to a moss covered rocky ledge jutting out over the water. Strung between two sturdy pines swung a large hammock. He ensconced her within its folds, slid in beside her, cradling her protectively. The trees groaned under their combined weights.

"Can it hold both of us?" she giggled, burrowing into her pillow and blanket.

"We'll soon find out! I'm kidding, it's a double hammock... close your eyes... relax."

Swaying under the pine canopy, water gently lapping below her, she could feel a delicious slumber beckoning.

"William?"

"Mmm?"

"Sing me your song, again... please." And she closed her eyes.

~ * ~

'Come on you love birds, wake up... it's supper time." Jane shook the hammock impatiently. William opened his eyes, squinted, and stretched his arms.

"What time is it?" He asked in a hoarse voice.

"Five o'clock, sleepy head. You'd better get going, didn't you guys have plans for this evening."

"Shhh... it's a surprise she doesn't know anything about it yet."

Jane widened her eyes in sudden comprehension. "Oooh."

Elizabeth refused to wake, so he gently eased her out of the hammock and carried her up the path - back to the cottage, Jane trudging behind them.

Her eyes flickered open reluctantly. "You're carrying me again?"

Jane piped in. " So this is a Darcy custom? I hope Charles is watching and learning..."

The remainder of the group was gathered around the barbecue, the outdoor table had been set. William deposited a now fully awake Elizabeth on the ground and turned to the group.

"Guys, thanks. You went to a lot of trouble for us. The food looks great!"

Charles threw William a sardonic glance. "I've just been apprised by my lovely fiancée, that I must now carry her around... in my arms no less... thanks Darce."

Swiftly moving toward Jane, he swung her over his shoulder, fireman style, and amidst protesting shrieks and giggles ran off toward the forest.

"I guess they'll miss dinner..." Fitz mumbled under his breath.

"Oh, they'll be back... just give them twenty minutes," Charlotte replied glibly.

~ * ~

Having left the foursome at the cottage, William parked his Suburban at the base of the Village. Tremblant Village sparkled in front of them; a colorful array of multihued buildings, cobbled meandering streets dotted with small cafes, boutiques and luxury lodgings. They strolled hand in hand, through the alleyways - uphill toward an open square. There, under a white tent, played a jazz band.

"This place is amazing, magic in the middle of the mountains!" she exclaimed, her senses assaulted by the surrounding sights and sounds.

"Come this way." He steered her toward the Gondola lift - snaking up to the summit.

"William, it's closed for the day, look it says so right here..."

He grinned, all anticipation. "No. It's not."

Exchanging a few words with the lift operator, he hoisted his knapsack through the open hatch and held out his hand.

"Climb in, it's fine."

The Gondola was covered, but afforded excellent views through two large windows, as it sped up the hill, suspended on a thin cable.

Elizabeth shivered as they passed a sheer rock face, cut in half by a dramatic waterfall. He circled his arm around her, drawing her near.

"How did you manage to convince him?"

"Who?"

"The lift operator."

"Oh, I made earlier arrangements."

"Arrangements?"

"Yes, you can rent the summit after hours, for special occasions."

She stared at him incredulously. "You rented the entire summit? For us? What's the occasion?" She already knew the answer.

He nodded his head, laughing. "This occasion requires privacy, so I made sure we would be alone."

"What about bears and wildlife, William?"

"I've come prepared, you should see me handle a hunting knife."

She made a face, suddenly feeling ridiculously childish with her questioning. The man had purchased an entire mountain summit for the night and here she was worried about bears... must be my hormones ...

"Enjoy the view, it gets even better."

A second operator greeted them at the top, throwing a conspiratorial wink at William. Leading her by the hand, knapsack slung on his back, he brought her to a tall wooden lookout. The views surrounding the pair were spectacular - everywhere one looked - mountain tops, valleys, clouds - and far below them, in the distance, sparkling Tremblant Village along the shores of an inky blue lake. As they walked toward the lookout, she noticed how the ski runs flowed from the summit, ribbon like and covered with wildflowers.

They climbed up a series of steps; the lookout, being over forty feet in height, offered the tallest vantage point over surrounding peaks and valleys. She was stunned speechless at the breathtaking display of raw beauty around her. He stared at her, intensely, passionately, her brown curls rippling in the breeze, almost at cloud level.

His Elizabeth.

She was everything he craved: intelligent, giving, loving, intensely feminine and in some enchanting way she held a key to his soul. She filled his senses, until he forgot all else, all but the love binding them together. Taking a deep breath, stilling his heart, he reached into the knapsack and closed his fingers against the softness of a cool velvet box. This is it... this is what you've been waiting for... dreamed about... Darcy.

"Elizabeth..."

"Yes?" she answered, without turning, enthralled by the view.

"You once told me you loved the mountains... on the boat, on our way to Key West."

"You remembered?" She looked at him, puzzled.

"Yes, I remembered... so I brought you here, this evening..." His heart began pounding, a crazy thundering rhythm, "to tell you with all my heart..." and he smiled, bright eyes shimmering.

"That you have brought music and light into my life, like no other... You are my moon, my stars, my rising sun. Because of you my world is now whole. I love you today, I will love you tomorrow, and I will love you forever... Elizabeth, will you be my wife?"

He slipped a stunning band around her finger, three metals intertwined in an intricate, almost mystical pattern.

"It's a trinity ring... platinum, yellow gold and pink gold...you, me and our baby."

Her hand shook, her lips trembled, she lost her voice for several long seconds. To William, it seemed an eternity.

"I... yes... would be honored... yes... William, my love... yes... to be your wife... YES!"

She smiled at him through a curtain of tears, then found his lips, and the tears stilled.

They clung to one another, clung with a profound and visceral love, and kissed... giving and taking and giving again. And thus they remained, two figures on a wooden lookout, on a mountain summit, high in the sky.

As the sun sunk low on the horizon, he led her to a moss covered hill, protected by a circle of evergreens. Dusk was beginning to drop its hazy veil around them. Unfurling a downy sleeping bag, they lay together side by side, enthralled in one another, waiting, yearning. He bent his head and set his lips - to the lips that were waiting for him. She sank against him, into him. She gave without restraint. There was power in her giving and once again it caught him, captured him and held him rapt. His fingers found the buttons of her clothing - and slid everything away. Her hair spilled over his hands. As the darkness enfolded them, he slid his lips from hers and tracking a supple line found the spot where her pulse beat hotly. He laved it, then sucked - drinking in the beating of her heart.

"I adore you..." he whispered into her soft skin.

Shifting his hold, he closed his hands over her breasts, filling his palms with downy fullness and ruched nipples. She gasped. The sound sent another rush of blood to his loins. Dragging his lips from her pulse point, he trailed open-mouthed kissed over her collarbone, to where her breasts molded into his hands.

And he feasted.

She sighed his name...

Her softness flowed around him, as she clung to him, her perfume and the scent of fresh mountain air wrapping about them. Sliding his hands over her hips, he lovingly traced the smooth lines of her flank, her belly... she was hot supple silk, alive... and she was his.

He'd dreamed of this moment, the moment following her "Yes" But this outshone the dream. He could barely breathe, mentally or physically. As if reading his mind, she kissed him. Her kiss grew hotter, sweeter, headier... she was all elixir.

Tightening his arms about her shoulders, he shifted onto her. She murmured incoherently, the sounds lost between their lips. Their kiss turned desperate, and he let his fingers drift down, searching, pressing delicately into her heated softness. He held her steady, and gently probed, stroked, soothed. Gripped in the dazzling newness of their intimacy, they soared. She was smoldering heat, clinging firmly onto his fingers, her breath shivering in his ears. He kissed her again, unhurriedly, and gently, reverently, he entered her throbbing sheath - and stilled, waiting.

She caught her breath on a fractured gasp.

"I'll be gentle, love..."

He found her lips and stilled her with a bottomless kiss. Keeping his hips still, he brushed back the tendrils of hair that had fallen across her cheek. He flexed his hips and pressed again, filling her, drawing back, he repeated the movement, ever steady, keeping the tempo slow, unhurried. It was pitch black around them, he couldn't see her, only feel her, hear her, sense her. He rocked her, rocked into her with the smoothest glide, concentrating on keeping his slow beat. His muscles flickered and twitched, his jaw clenched with tension. She arched her hips - and whispered.

"Let's ride... together."

And they did, together.

His senses were excruciatingly full as he focused most completely on where they joined. And they rode on, through their sensual landscape, scaling higher and higher peaks. The cool total darkness amplified each brilliant sensation. She clung, gasped, shattered, and rose again... to ride on, beside him. He couldn't get his fill of her, of her love, her giving... he drank greedily and she gave generously.

The joy, the delight, the pleasure scaled new heights - until, finally - with dazzling abandon - his control shattered - a soul shattering glory that transported him beyond this world.

He was whole.

William shut his eyes, feeling her soften beneath him, feeling her cradle him in her clasp. She rocked him, soothingly... and for the first time in front of his love, William Darcy cried.

Epilogue

Hold me close and hold me fast
The magic spell you cast
This is la vie en rose
When you kiss me, Heaven sighs
And though I close my eyes
I see la vie en rose
When you press me to your heart
I'm in a world apart
A world where roses bloom
And when you speak
Angels sing from above
Every day words
Seem to turn into love songs
Give your heart and soul to me
And life will always be
La vie en rose...

Adapted from "La Vie en Rose" by Edith Piaf.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that ceremonies anchor the flow of life. And so it was with the wedding of William Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet; their anchor touched many hearts, rooted as it was in the deepest of mutual love, respect, friendship and passion.

Many would reminisce upon that balmy September evening held at Vizcaya. The beauty of the Italianate surroundings, the delicious repast, flowing Champagne, and exquisite attention to detail sated many a hardened soul. Some would recall the bride, an ethereal vision in antique Regency lace, a lush wreath of roses crowning her flowing hair. Others would evoke the groom's wide-eyed smile of wonder on first glimpsing her. Many would recount with a chuckle Jane's raucous toast to the bride and groom, or perhaps sigh at the memory of Georgianna singing a lovely ballad, dedicated to her brother. Others would hark back to Edward Darcy's surprising tears as he danced with the bride and Charlotte's gleeful laughter as she caught the bouquet. Fitz, as official photographer, would remember the bride and groom's insistence on pictures by a fountain, in a walled garden. However, all assembled would never forget one precious image - the scintillating yacht, festooned with lights, ribbons and bows - sailing off into the sea - re- christened "My Elizabeth."

The End


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